Thursday, 21 April 2016

The Tyrannosaur Chronicles - David Hone ***

For most of us, dinosaurs have a strangely Victorian feel, with the associations of large, scary skeletons in nineteenth century buildings like the Natural History Museum. However, not only has knowledge of this remarkable group of animals moved on hugely since those skeletons were first put on show, the amount we have learned in the last 20 years eclipses everything that has come before, so it is valuable to have a really up-to-date view of dinosaurs, and in particular that most popular of groupings, the tyrannosaurs.

It's appropriate that I mention a Victorian feel, as David Hone's writing does have something of a fussy academic style. Unlike some academics who write popular science, he retains a precision and requirement to note uncertainty in some detail that doesn't make for the best reading, even if it is strictly the most accurate way to present what is, and isn't known. (I assumed he was about 70 from his style, but from the photo he's a lot younger.) However, this isn't disastrous and there is no doubt that what he gives us is a thorough grounding in dinosaurs in general, how the various tyrannosaurs (it's not just T. rex, by any means) fit into the bigger picture and a lot of the detail we know about them.

What's refreshing about this book is the clear presentation of just how difficult it is to make definitive statements based on a few, often fragmentary remains of animals that lived many millions of years ago. Even an apparently obvious distinction like whether an animal is male or female, or whether it is a small species or the juvenile of a different large species, is anything but straightforward. This approach is a wonderful counter to the likes of the TV show Walking with Dinosaurs (ironically Hone has written for the WwD website), which may have entertained its large audiences with its apparent 'facts', but made vast unsupported assumptions that Hone sweeps aside to show what we really know and don't know.

It's not possible to give this book more than three stars, because it suffers deeply from what you might call Rutherford's disease. The great physicist Ernest Rutherford infamously said 'All science is either physics or stamp collecting,' mocking the way some scientific disciplines are primarily about collecting and collating information, and the majority of The Tyrannosaur Chronicles is a step-by-step, working through what we know about different bits of the skeletons, what we can deduce about their diet from their skeletons, what we can deduce about the way they moved from their skeletons, what we deduce about their feathers from fossil remains and so forth. It will delight the young (or old) dinosaur enthusiast who wants to absorb every last piece of evidence, but it can be quite hard going for the general reader.

I found in working through the book that some chapters came across much stronger than others - a topic would suddenly become interesting and give some real insights, but then we'd be back to the stamp collecting. This may have been because some chapters take on a wider remit - so, for instance, one of the chapters I found most interesting was on the physiology of the tyrannosaurs, because rather than just describe (for instance) the skull and its implications, as one chapter does, the physiology chapter talks about the difference between being warm and cold blooded, showing it's not a simple binary option, and exploring whether dinosaurs, and tyrannosaurs in particular, could be fitted into a particular category and why.

For me, as a reader, by far the best part of the book was something the author probably thinks is totally trivial. I was aware that birds were some kind of relation to dinosaurs, but Hone makes it clear that birds are dinosaurs - and that simple revelation was startling. I'm sure others would get a lot more out of the detailed descriptions and illustrations (I wish there had been more illustrations) than I did. And Hone does a splendid job of showing both how far our understanding has moved on and how much more we need to discover. But it was a book that I found involved a fair amount of work to continue reading.

Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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